Off to Japan . . . Almost!

Later this week – Wednesday before dawn, to be exact – I’m heading off to Japan!


While there, I’ll be teaching two workshops at the Japan Writers Conference (October 29-30, at Tokushima University – the conference is free and open to the public: details here!).

After the conference, I’ll be spending two weeks researching the next three Hiro Hattori novels, starting with Book 6 (working title: KINGS OF HELL). While I can’t tell you exactly what adventures lie in store for Hiro and Father Mateo in the books to come, my itinerary holds some hints. Here’s where I’ll be traveling:

Arrival: Tokyo/Narita Airport –> Tokushima (conference) –> Kyoto –> Osaka –> Koyasan –> Gifu –> Magome/Tsumago –> Hakone –> Kamakura –> Tokyo/Home!


Due to my travel plans, I won’t be posting reliably here at the blog until my return on November 14. However, I do plan to hop in periodically and share a few photos and highlights of the trip, so please check in – and I’ll return to my usual blogging schedule on November 15!

(Also: don’t worry about the seahorses and other residents of my reef. My husband is staying home this trip, so he’ll be here to take care of the house, the cats, and all of my finned friends in my absence.)

Until then … sayonara!

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The Noh Stage at Itsukushima Jinja, Japan

(sometimes Romanized as “Noh”)  is one of Japan’s oldest theatrical forms, and the oldest form of traditional theater still being regularly practiced today.  

Nō plays involve masked lead and supporting actors, a chorus, and accompaniment by flutes and drums; the stories are based on Japanese legends and histories (popular subjects for drama around the world) and often feature a “transformation” of the lead actor between the first and second acts.


Because nō was originally performed at shrines during religious festivals and on special occasions, many of the oldest nō stages in Japan are located at shrines.


At 440 years old, the nō stage at Itsukushima Jinja (Shrine) on Miyajima Island (Hiroshima Prefecture) is one of the oldest in Japan:


It’s also the only nō stage built below the high tide line, on a raised platform that is entirely surrounded by water during high tide. Unlike most nō stages, which are constructed to ensure the actors can pass across them in absolute silence, the stage at Itsukushima Jinja is specifically constructed to allow the actors’ feet to create an echo.


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Keeping Track of Deductible Expenses

Today, the ongoing Wednesday series on managing the legal side of your writing career takes a look at an important tax issues many authors struggle with: keeping track of deductions.

First, a disclaimer: this post is not, and should not be construed as, legal or tax advice. Consult an accountant or licensed attorney for assistance with your personal tax issues, including (but not limited to) legally permitted tax deductions.

Today’s post isn’t about what you can deduct – that varies based on your personal situation, writing income* and other factors. Instead, we’re looking at some ways to document potentially deductible expenses, to ensure you don’t lose or forget to declare permitted deductions when tax time comes.

1. Create physical and electronic files for writing-related receipts and expense records, and keep them separate from your other tax deduction records.

Keeping your writing-related expenses and receipts physically separated from your other tax files helps you determine how much you spent (and what you spent it on) at the end of the year. Since writing income and expenses are typically reported on a separate schedule from other types of income, keeping the receipts separated saves you time and confusion down the line.

By creating both a physical file and an electronic one for each tax year, you ensure that neither printed receipts nor electronic ones fall through the cracks and escape.

2. Write notes on each receipt, detailing where and why the expense or cost was incurred.

You may believe your memory is good enough to recall exactly why you thought that restaurant receipt belonged in the file with your deductions, but memories fade. After a year (or even several months) you may not remember whether that receipt represents a meal you had with your agent, eating out while attending a conference, or a meal you paid for at a MWA or RWA event.

When talking with your accountant (or preparing your own taxes, if you do), you’ll need to remember exactly why an expense was incurred in order to determine (or help the tax preparer determine) if it’s deductible.

Every time you receive a receipt, make a note–on the back, or in the margin–detailing the date, location, and reason you incurred the expense. If necessary, also note how that expense relates to your writing.

Then, when preparing your taxes (or, if necessary, in an audit) you’ll have clear recall of the reason you incurred the expense and why you believe it qualifies as a tax deduction. 

3. Learn what is, and is not deductible.

Yes, this sounds like work, but it’s important. Many authors–and small business owners in other industries, too–lose out on tax deductions because they don’t know what they can (and cannot) deduct. Others suffer unnecessary audits (and penalties from the IRS) for the same reason.

If you don’t know what expenses a writer can (and cannot) deduct, and when, consult an accountant or attorney in your state. It’s worth the cost of an hour-long meeting to educate yourself.

In some areas, lawyers and accountants offer tax training sessions (usually free) for small business owners. These may or may not apply to authors and artists, so check with the host before you plan to attend.

Taxes are a stressful topic for many people, including writers, but with a little education and planning, you can keep yourself on track.

*The IRS has a published list of factors it considers when determining whether income-producing activities are “businesses” or “hobbies.” In 2014, the tax court ruled that an artist who otherwise meets the “business” test but does not make a profit within the time period generally required by the IRS may still have her art considered a “business” – but in every case, the determination is made on an individual, facts and circumstances basis.

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A Visit to Itsukushima Jinja (part 2)

During last summer’s research trip to Japan, I visited Itsukushima Jinja, an important Shinto shrine on Miyajima island in Hiroshima Prefecture. (If you’d like to start from the beginning, you can find part 1 here.)

The approach to the shrine follows the island’s shoreline to the natural inlet that protects the shrine from the strait beyond.


The shrine sits on stilts because at one time the island was considered too sacred for commoners’ feet to touch. By building the shrine below the high tide line, visitors could approach in boats and worship without touching the sacred soil.


Today, visitors approach the shrine by land.


After passing a ritual purification fountain (where most visitors stop to perform a Shinto purification of the hands and mouth)


Visitors enter the shrine itself. Like most Shinto shrines, there is no admission fee (though donations are happily accepted, and freely given by most of the visitors).


The shrine’s major buildings are connected by brightly-colored, covered walkways–all constructed above the high tide line.


Here’s the view from the entrance hall, looking out toward the shrine’s main buildings:


The shrine’s main worship hall lies only a short walk from the entrance. I took no photographs of the worship hall itself (it would have been disrespectful) but here’s a view of the Great Torii, as seen from the area right in front of the shrine’s main altar:


In fact, the great torii is visible from most parts of the shrine: 


Near the primary altar, visitors can have a goshuincho (stamp book) stamped and marked with calligraphy by the shrine’s priests and also obtain a fortune. Fortunes are available at many Shinto shrines. Visitors place an offering in the fortune box (usually the equivalent of $1) and shake a wooden stick from a canister. After reading the number on the stick, visitors remove a fortune from the drawer with the matching number and return the wooden stick to its place. Here’s my son receiving his fortune:


Sake is a popular offering at Shinto shrines, and many (including Itsukushima Jinja) display some of the offerings they receive. These are sake casks presented as an offering to the kami:


Like many Shinto shrines, Itsukushima Jinja is popular with tourists (both foreign and Japanese) as well as worshippers. If you want to see it without too many other people around, I recommend visiting in the early morning, late afternoon, or — best of all — spending a night in one of Miyajima’s ryokan (traditional Japanese inns – my favorite is Ryokan Iwaso) and getting up early to visit the shrine before the ferries start running in the morning.




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Income Tax Basics for Authors

Today’s installment of “Managing the Business Side of Your Writing Career” takes a look at another business-related topic: income taxes.

Most authors hope to become full-time writers, supported entirely by income from sales of their works. However, many authors continue to work a “day job” in addition to writing, at least during the early years of their careers. 

Once an author begins receiving income from his or her writing, however, the author needs to be aware of special tax issues this income creates.

For those who already work as independent contractors, these issues should be familiar. However, authors whose previous work experience classified them only as “employees” will need to learn a new set of tax procedures applicable to their writing income.

In the U.S., writing income is generally reported on IRS Form 1099 (Miscellaneous Income).

U.S. residents (and people living abroad who pay taxes in the United States) who earn income from writing or publishing do not receive a W-2 from the publisher (or retailers like Amazon or Smashwords, in the case of independently-published authors). Instead, an author receives Form 1099 – a report of income other than wages, salaries or tips.

While authors should expect to receive 1099s each year, authors must still keep careful track of all writing income received. The author has a legal obligation to report (and pay taxes on) this income whether or not a 1099 or other tax form was received.

People who receive Form 1099 are considered self-employed or independent contractors- and people who fall into those categories must pay quarterly estimated taxes during the year. Four times a year, in April, June, September and January, authors (and other self-employed people) must pay estimated taxes to the IRS and their state of residence based on the amount of self-employed/writing income earned during the previous calendar quarter.

If you fail to pay estimated taxes on time, or fail to pay enough, the IRS and/or state will assess a monetary penalty.

Don’t incur a penalty because you were unprepared! As soon as you sign a publishing contract or self-publish your first manuscript:

1. Get the necessary forms for estimated tax payments from the IRS and your state, and mark your calendar with the relevant payment dates. 

2. Find out what level of income is required to trigger estimated tax payments (state & federal), & track your writing income. Remember: you have to declare all writing income on your annual taxes, even if it doesn’t trigger estimated payments.

3. Set aside a portion of every royalty check or distribution to cover your tax obligations – don’t anticipate having enough left over from then-current income when the tax payment comes due.

4. Don’t forget to document your deductions! Authors can often deduct certain writing and publishing-related costs, expenditures and expenses. Consult a tax advisor to learn which deductions you can (and cannot) legitimately claim. Be aware: the IRS has changed the rule that required “profits” in order for artistic endeavors to remain a job instead of a hobby. Don’t forget to save receipts to document your deductions thoroughly.

I’m not a tax advisor, and this post should not be taken as tax advice. Consult a qualified accountant or other tax advisor before making decisions on tax issues.

Please join me next week, when my Wednesday post will take a closer look at how to document your deductions, so you have the information available when tax time rolls around.

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The Pagodas and Smaller Temples of Miyajima Island

Although Itsukushima Jinja is the most famous of Miyajima’s shrines and temples, the island has several other religious and cultural sites of interest – many of which are nestled among the island’s sleepy back roads:


While walking to or from Itsukushima Jinja, visitors can’t miss the towering five-storied pagoda dedicated to the Buddha of Medicine:


The pagoda’s original statues have been moved to Daiganji temple:


But both the pagoda and the temple are open to visitors, and worth a look if you spend a day (or, better, two days and a night) on Miyajima Island.

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A Visit to Itsukushima Shrine – Miyajima, Japan (Part 1)

Last summer’s research trip to Japan took me all the way to Miyajima Island (sometimes also known as Itsukushima, after the shrine that sits on its shore), where I spent two memorable days and a wonderful night exploring one of Japan’s most beautiful and iconic islands.


Miyajima (Itsukushima) sits across the Onseto Strait from Hiroshima, near the southwestern end of Honshu, Japan’s largest island. (The island itself is part of Hiroshima Prefecture.) Visitors access the island by ferries, which are easily reached by rail and subway lines. The trip across the strait takes 10-15 minutes:


While the island is home to many shrines and temples, the best-known, Itsukushima Shrine, sits directly on the beach.


Its giant red torii, known as the Great Torii, or Otorii, has become one of Japan’s most famous and enduring symbols:


Originally constructed in 1168, and rebuilt periodically in accordance with Shintō tradition, this version of the Otorii is the eighth, and dates to 1875. It survived the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, unharmed.


After arriving on Miyajima, visitors walk along a wide, paved path that leads along the beach and around a point to Itsukushima Shrine.



The Great Torii is visible most of the way, but the shrine itself becomes visible only after rounding the point.


The shrine’s buildings are constructed on stilts, because the shrine sits below the high tide line. At one time, the entire island was considered too sacred for most people (especially commoners) to set foot on. Hence, the shrine was built below the high tide line, so worshippers could access it via boats (at high tide only) and offer sacrifices and prayers to the gods without having to set foot on the sacred land.


Fortunately, those restrictions have been lifted, and Miyajima now welcomes visitors from across Japan and around the world.

The island is also home to several hundred sika (“deer,” in Japanese). Like the deer in Nara Park, the sika on Miyajima were once considered sacred, but are now officially titled “National Treasures.” 


Miyajima’s deer are wild, but have no fear of humans and often approach visitors in hopes of a treat or a scratch behind the ears.


Signs on the island remind tourists that the deer are wild, and unpredictable, but the deer (and most of the visitors) pretty much ignore the signs.

Itsukushima Jinja (shrine) itself is over 1400 years old, and a registered World Heritage Site. The deities enshrined and worshipped there are the children of Amaterasu Omikami, the sun goddess (and chief deity in the Shinto pantheon) and her brother Susanoo-no-mikoto, god of the sea and storms. 

During my visit, I spent a morning touring the shrine itself…and I’ll tell you more about it later this week!

Have you ever visited Hiroshima Province? Did you take a trip to Itsukushima/Miyajima on your journey?

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The Joys of Japan’s Seasonal Cuisine

Japanese cuisine is heavily seasonal (and regional), with different “specialties” popping up across the country as the seasons turn. From “street food” and snacks to desserts and main courses, menus across Japan change–often radically–with the seasons, making a visit to Japan in the summer a very different culinary experience from a trip in the autumn, winter, or spring.

Certain staple flavors, like matcha (a powdered form of green tea), remain on the menu year-round, though the form may change throughout the year.

Matcha-flavored cakes, like this one I purchased in Tokyo Station while waiting to catch a shinkansen (bullet train) for Kyoto, are available in any season:


But the sweetened, iced form of matcha–pictured here with a traditional, peanut-sprinkled jelly “sweet” at a restaurant outside Kasuga Taisha in Nara Park–is far more common and easier to find in the spring and summer months.


When I return to Japan, three weeks from now, matcha-flavored treats will still be common, and hot tea (o-cha) is available almost everywhere. However, the seasonal summer treats I enjoyed during last year’s research trip to Iga-Ueno, Kyoto, Nara, Miyajima (near Hiroshima) and Tokyo will be difficult, if not impossible, to find.

But I’m not worried.

Autumn is my favorite season, and it’s a favorite in Japan as well. Momijigari (“leaf viewing” or hunting for autumn foliage) is a popular pastime in Japan during October and November, and Japan’s cuisine takes on a distinctly autumn palate during these months as well. Autumn specialties include roasted sweet potatoes (yakiimo), chestnuts (kuri), kabocha/pumpkin and new rice, as well as sanma, a small, silver fish cooked primarily in autumn.

Hot coffee (and lattes, and cafe au lait) remains popular too. Here’s a beautiful latte I enjoyed at an independent coffee house in the lower levels of Kyoto Station while waiting for a train:


Although my allergy to fish takes sanma off my menu in any season, I plan to try (and photograph) as many other Japanese autumn specialties as possible, and to share the experience here on the blog and on my other social media feeds (on Twitter, I’m @SusanSpann, and on both during my travels and in the months to come.  

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An Introduction to Sales Taxes for Authors

Many authors know about the obligation to pay personal taxes (if you don’t, you’ve been under a rock for far too long), but confusion often reigns when it comes to sales tax issues.

Today, let’s take a look at when authors might (and might not) have to collect and pay sales tax on book sales.

Sales Taxes (and Rules) Vary by State and Jurisdiction

Unfortunately, there is no “one-size-fits-all” rule about sales taxes (except that you’ll have to pay penalties if you don’t collect and remit them when due). Each individual who sells products (including books) is responsible for knowing and obeying applicable tax laws.

BEFORE you sell books in any jurisdiction, make sure you investigate and understand the sales (and other) tax laws that apply to you. Remember: the overview in this article will not excuse your failure to collect and remit any taxes owed on sales you make–you must investigate and understand your obligations before you make the sales–and comply with them afterward.

Third Party Vendors (Like Amazon and Bookstores) Collect and Pay the Sales Tax on Sales They Make.

When your books are sold through third party vendors like Amazon, local booksellers, or event hosts (for example, a conference bookstore), the vendor normally handles collection and remittance of sales taxes due on the sales. This means if your books are sold by third-party vendors, normally you (the author) don’t have to deal with sales tax issues.

Many authors address the sales tax issue by only selling work through third parties who handle the sales taxes. That’s a fair choice, and saves the author the burden of researching and complying with sales tax rules in the different jurisdictions where books are sold. However, for many authors (including author-publishers) selling through third parties isn’t always a viable option.

Before selling books in a jurisdiction (location), contact the local taxing board or authority and learn these important facts:

1. Whether taxes are due on the type of sales the author intends to make. (For example, tax may not be due unless your sales exceed a certain amount.)

2. How much tax to collect. (Usually, this is a percentage of the sales price.)

3. How long does the seller have to remit (send in) the taxes after the sales are made. (Penalties often accrue if sales tax payments are remitted late, so pay attention to the deadlines.)

4. Where should the payment be sent, and in what form. (Many taxing authorities now accept payments online, via the Internet, which simplifies the process substantially.)

5. Do the circumstances of your sales (or planned sales) require you to register for a sales license in the territory? (Authors who regularly sell their own books in their home territories, or who sell a lot of books in any single territory, might need a sales license – call the taxing board and ask.) 

Without knowing the answers to these questions, it’s easy to make mistakes and difficult to collect and pay the tax you owe. 

Remember: sales tax isn’t “automatically” charged on sales of your books. If you’re the seller, you need to know the law, collect the appropriate sales taxes, and remit (send) them to the proper authorities in a timely manner.

This article does not address all sales tax-related issues authors may face. Consult an attorney or accountant, as well as the taxing authorities in territories where you sell books, to ensure you know your rights and obligations.

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In Search of: Momiji Tempura (Fried Maple Leaves)

Momijigari, or “viewing autumn leaves,” is a traditional Japanese pastime during the autumn months, when many Japanese trees (including maples, ginko, and other deciduous species) transform from lush, green summer tones:


to the fiery oranges, reds, and golds of autumn. 

During the medieval era, samurai and their families often visited temples, parks, and natural spaces to view and appreciate autumn leaves at the peak of their colorful finery, and to this day momijigari is a treasured cultural pastime in Japan. Websites post  ongoing foliage forecasts (updated regularly to provide information about the best leaf-viewing spots in the country) and popular viewing spots become crowded when autumn foliage peaks.  


Japanese cuisine is seasonal by nature, and autumn favorites like roasted sweet potatoes (yaki-imo) and chestnuts begin to appear as the season turns. Regional specialties appear in autumn, too, including one I’m hoping to try when I head to Japan later this month: tempura maple leaves (momiji no tempura), a specialty served at Minō Park in Northern Osaka.

The maple leaves are pickled in salt for a year, and then fried in a sweetened sesame batter, producing a crispy treat unique to Minō Park. Although I’ve heard the leaves can be found in bagged/preserved form throughout the year, the fresh variety is offered only during the autumn, and (apparently) only from vendors at or near Minō Park.

I admit to more than a little curiosity — and since the waterfall and foliage viewing at Minō Park is apparently well worth a trip on its own accord, I’m planning to spend my day in Osaka (in part) seeking out–and hopefully eating–this unique autumn treat.

I’ll be in Osaka November 2, so expect an update here on the blog some time in early November – most likely, a month from today! 

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